Del McCoury / The Del McCoury Band

The Streets of Baltimore

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After cutting a pair of ambitious concept albums in 2011 -- American Legacies, a collaboration with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, and Old Memories, a tribute to the music of bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe -- the Del McCoury Band seem to have eased up a bit when they went into the studio to cut 2013's The Streets of Baltimore, which McCoury himself described in a press release as simply "a group of songs that I liked." But when you're talking about one of the very best bluegrass groups working in the 21st Century, just playing a set of good songs can add up to something pretty special. The Streets of Baltimore shows that guitarist McCoury and his band -- Ronnie McCoury (mandolin), Rob McCoury (banjo), Jason Carter (fiddle), and Alan Bartram (bass) -- aren't resting on their laurels. In these sessions, they're still among the hottest acoustic acts around, showing off superb individual chops as well as a keen understanding of how to bring their ideas together as a group, and they can harmonize nearly as well as they play. McCoury's lead vocals are firmly rooted in bluegrass tradition, but he never sinks into cliche and can approach more modern material without sounding anachronistic. And if these are just a bunch of songs McCoury liked, then let's raise a toast to the man's excellent taste -- he reshapes the Jerry Lee Lewis hit "Once More with Feeling," the Erroll Garner standard "Misty," the Platters' pop classic "Only You," and Brenda Lee's "Too Many Rivers" into songs that are his alone, and the McCoury Band bring less familiar compositions, like the Civil War ballad "The Butler Brothers" and the troubled meditation "I Need More Time," to vivid life. This may not be the best or most ambitious album the Del McCoury Band has released in their career, but The Streets of Baltimore certainly confirms that this group is as good as contemporary bluegrass gets, and this music delivers a healthy dose of soul, passion, and joy.

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